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Children with an Alive & Kicking ball

Tag: Special Olympics

The Ball is here!

No sign of Kilimanjaro. The famous mountain is out of view for the duration of our stay in Tanzania. This is common here in May. It’s winter time and visibility is poor. The Ball is here, but Kilimanjaro doesn’t appear to be.

One last chance… we board the Precision Air sponsored flight to Dar es Salaam via Zanzibar at Kilimanjaro International Airport. Will we win again? We hope so. Alas, even miles above ground, there is no sight of Africa’s highest peak. We’re just surrounded by cloud.

Our only view of Kilimanjaro is a sign at the airportOur only view of Kilimanjaro is a sign at the airport

Anyway, thoughts turn elsewhere during the flight. Andrew hasn’t seen his girlfriend for months and she’s come to visit The Ball for the Tanzanian leg. Christian’s excited for other reasons – he’s looking forward to his first cavalcade with The Ball and what looks like being one of most outrageous series of events planned for The Ball yet.

DHL’s Managing Director Blaise de Souza is there to greet The Ball on the runway and a scrum of media are there too. We’re led through to a waiting crowd. It sounds like pandemonium out there. Andrew and his girlfriend Jessica embrace.

Jessica and Andrew meet for the first time in agesJessica and Andrew meet for the first time in ages

Tanzanian poet and musical superstar Mpoto greets The Ball at the airport. A large crowd outside of the terminal is entertained by drummers beating out rhythms of life while dancers shake their booty in true African style to some outrageously good Congolese tunes. The Ball is led to a truck endowed with a massive “The Ball is Here” sign in the green and white of sponsor Zantel.

Mpoto greets The BallMpoto greets The Ball
The Bus is here!The Bus is here!

Christian and Andrew climb on board as the truck is led off by 6 DHL motorcycle outriders and followed closely behind by baton-wielding policemen in a 4×4 with sirens blaring. People lining the streets recognise Mpoto, who is known for his socially conscious poetry. Some look at us confused or smile in amusement, others wave frantically, some dance wildly.

The Ball gets round the city streetsThe Ball gets round the city streets
The Ball's police tag teamThe Ball’s police tag team

Christian can hardly believe his eyes and ears — this isn’t anything like previous trips that The Ball has made.

What a ballWhat a ball we’ve had today

St Pauls Orphanage

“You won’t get a better reception in all of Kenya,” Tish Pearson of the Robert Grace Foundation tells Christian before he heads off for Nairobi. The St Paul’s Orphanage, just outside Nairobi, is supported by the foundation. “We’d be delighted if The Ball could visit the children there.”

Leaving Andrew back at base, Christian goes off to visit the orphanage with Joe Mutua, Regional Director of Special Olympics. The Ball is warmly received — although, to Christian’s surprise, few of the children are actually football enthusiasts. Nevertheless, everyone kicks and signs The Ball and laughs and smiles are everywhere.

Margaret, the orphanage mother, signs The BallMargaret, the orphanage mother, signs The Ball

Joe talks at length to Margaret, the “mother” of the orphanage. He discovers that 15 of the children at the home are intellectually disabled. He immediately arranges for them to take part in Special Olympics sporting events in the future (SO do sports other than football, of course) and suggests that two of the older residents, James and Carol, be trained by Special Olympics to offer sports coaching locally.

Ooh, a ball! The youngest goalie in KenyaOoh, a ball! The youngest goalie in Kenya

Joe also puts Margaret in touch with Alive & Kicking, who made The Ball here in Nairobi, and tells her that this will almost certainly result in the donation of footballs to the home. He also promises to make sure that Margaret is put in contact with MYSA, who also offer sporting activities and other social support locally.

Young orphanage residents sign The BallYoung orphanage residents sign The Ball

It seems to be an innate feature of The Ball that it makes connections wherever it goes, whether between people or between organisations. And today, it seems that the connection that has been made with Joe at Special Olympics will result in some real, tangible and lasting benefits for the children of St Pauls.


“It’s called Score Against Substance Abuse,” Wario says. Behind him, on the touchline, two kids are sniffing glue from plastic bags. Andrew starts to warm up for a game. We look down. The football field appears to be covered in glass. A shiver goes down Andrew’s spine.

Wario Donne, founder of SASAWario Donne, founder of SASA

Wario Donne has been in contact with us since before The Ball left England. He’s been extolling the virtues of football in his work with youngsters in one of Nairobi’s largest and most notorious slums. His mission is to offer them a vision of life that offers them more than the attractions of drugs and crime. And he wants us to see how well it works. We go along with a contingent from Special Olympics Kenya who are keen to link up with SASA.

Can’t you clear the pitch of that glass?” we ask Wario. “Not really, the field is glass,” he replies. “We’d have to dig down six inches before we find anything other than glass.” No sliding tackles today then, Andrew thinks to himself. As Andrew carefully avoids going to ground on the field, Christian watches the action unfold from the touchline.

Children crowd around on the touchlineChildren crowd around on the touchline

“What’s going on?” a bystander asks him.
“It’s Unified Football,” Christian explains, “people with intellectual disabilities and people without play in the same team.”
“Which ones are disabled?”
A pause. Christian smiles. A light goes on in the guy’s head.
“Thank you,” he says, “I understand now.”

Left out of the Brazil squad, Ronaldinho watches the gameLeft out of the Brazil squad, Ronaldinho watches the game

You can’t stop kids sniffing glue. But you can offer them an alternative. Wario is engaging young people in playing football. He’s offering them the chance to join a team, make friends and compete in regular tournaments. And maybe the light will go on in the heads of those young people. Like it did with the guy Christian met on the touchline.

Special Olympics and the Legends

An early roll-call at Nairobi University today for the main Special Olympics event in Kenya. Athletes, parents, supporters and players are already assembled as we pile out of the DHL van with The Ball.

Peter Wanderi waits for the paradePeter Wanderi waits for the parade to arrive

A parade around the pitch is followed by Unified Football. Sides run on to the pitch and, unusually, the captains meet at the centre-spot to decide the length of time they will play for. On this sweltering cloudless day, they opt for shorter halves than perhaps they would otherwise. “Thirty minute halves” comes the opening bid. The other captain looks up at the sky and the blazing sun and with sweat already forming on his forearms he replies: “15 minutes each way”. Every good haggle results in a compromise and twenty minutes each way is settled on. The result is fast and furious action, enjoyed by players and spectators alike.

And so to the main event — a team of Kenyan footballing legends takes the field to warm up for a game against a unified team of local Special Olympians and travelling football crews. Their team sheet reads like a who’s who of Kenyan football: Aggrey Lukoye, Josephat Murila, Tobias Ochola, Austin Oduor and Elly Adero are all in the starting line-up. Andrew is joined by Lorrie and Brian from Kickabout and two coaches from Arsenal, who have just arrived from Vietnam to give football training sessions with local NGOs.

It is a closely fought game, neither side giving an inch. Andrew scores a goal with a flying header, scuffing up his knees quite severely in the process. But it’s worth it — goal of the game, no doubt about it. The final score? It didn’t matter — the handshakes, the smiles, the memories were what this day was all about.

Group photo after the gameGroup photo after the game

But the highlight of the event for us? Seeing everyone given a proper meal after the game, the Special Olympics athletes first in line, just as they should be.

SO athletes are the first to be fedSO athletes are the first to be fed


“The most important book of my generation was ‘The Joy of Sex’ but if I were to write a book, I’d call it ‘The Joy of Football'”
— Bob Munro, MYSA Founder and Chairman

In the world of football for development, the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) needs little introduction. Nominated twice for a Nobel Prize, this organisation which began humbly in the impoverished Mathare slum has touched the lives of more than 150,000 people in Nairobi. It is recognised throughout the world as a model for how sport can have a positive impact in a disadvantaged community.

John Ndichu Ng'ethe and Andrew in front of MYSA's trophy cabinetAndrew talks to John Ndichu Ng’ethe

John Ndichu Ng’ethe proudly stands in front of an impressive trophy cabinet. He has come through the ranks at MYSA from youth project participant to youth leader to his current post as PR Manager. He tells us in detail and from experience about how the organisation works and what the results have been. MYSA offers us inspiration and encouragement. We recommend checking out their website for the full story.

The Kenyan championship-winning Mathare United teamThe Kenyan championship-winning Mathare United team

After hearing their story, we tell the story of The Ball to a packed room. And then it’s on to the reason for our visit, another unified game — a youth team from Mathare United (yes, they have a professional club with players drawn exclusively from MYSA) versus a unified team of Special Olympians, Kickabout and ourselves. Mathare United are clearly superb footballers and toy with the unified team, passing accurately and scoring freely.

The Ball returns to the centre spot again (and again)The Ball returns to the centre spot again (and again)

Not even the introduction of our ringer, former USA Womens World Cup winner Lorrie Fair, stems the tide. Fair’s more than fair though, and gets a huge cheer from the girls on the touchline — who are clearly impressed by her skill — every time she gets the ball.

Lorrie Fair signs The BallLorrie Fair signs The Ball

The final scoreline is a fitting testament to the success of MYSA. There is no shame in being beaten by the better team. Losing gracefully is one of the most important lessons in the art of taking part.

All hands in unity on The BallAll hands in unity on The Ball

Kenyatta University

The traffic enforces our adherence to “Africa-time”. We leave Arthur and Sanna de Leeuw’s house — many thanks for letting us stay with you guys — with Joe Karanga navigating the potholed roads and insane congestion of Nairobi for our first appointment of the day at Kenyatta University.

The sun is blazing already as we arrive and are greeted by Peter Wanderi, a university lecturer who introduces us to his colleagues who volunteer with Special Olympics. We are introduced to a large group of parents of athletes, who are huddled in the only shade around, provided by a small tree at the edge of the playing field where their children are getting sports coaching.

Andrew and Special Olympics family membersAndrew and Special Olympics family members

Andrew speaks to them about The Ball and its mission and we are impressed to learn that they have formed their own support network as a result of showing up along with their children every week. They are supported whole-heartedly by staff and students from the university. This really is an extended family. All are invited to sign The Ball — with the usual condition that they kick or head it first. Headers are delivered in quick succession.

Then we are mobbed by the children. There are just too may of them to consider going one by one so we devise a solution. An enormous circle is formed, and The Ball is knocked around allowing everyone to have a touch and a turn in the middle. Then a mass signing takes place: five markers and more than a hundred children with Andrew in the middle somewhere.

Mass signing of The Ball in progressMass signing of The Ball in progress

The smiles and laughter are testament to the power of The Ball to bring a little light into every situation.

Search and Groom Nigeria

Sebastian Wunderlich took the undergraduate football for development course at the University of Erfurt that we were offering — appropriately called The Spirit of Football. He became a valuable member of the seminar and now he is on the board of directors of Spirit of Football e.V. in Erfurt, Germany. Sebastian wants to use the positive power of football to do some good in society. Through the German development education progamme ASA, he was able to do an internship at the NGO Search and Groom (S&G) in Nigeria.

It was there he met Yomi Kuku, S&G’s Executive Director. Sebas introduced me to Yomi. We connected Yomi to Special Olympics Nigeria and together they planned some events for The Ball’s arrival in Nigeria.

Search and Groom ladsSearch & Groom lads meet up with The Ball

We met Yomi at the Ikeja Youth sports center in Lagos, Nigeria to talk about S&G.

Yomi Kuku, Executive Director of Search and Groom NigeriaYomi Kuku, Executive Director of Search & Groom Nigeria

Andrew: What exactly are you guys doing at S&G Yomi?

Yomi: Here we use football as a tool to communicate with disadvantaged young people to encourage them to live a life if integrity, self dignity and to realize their full potential. We use the instrument of fair play football to achieve that. We have been doing that for over 8 years in Lagos, Nigeria.

Are there some stories you can share with us?

There are many. Too many. But, let me share two.

There was a player, Joseph Olamiju, who was down mentally, physically and spiritually. After joining us in 2005, we took him out of Nigeria twice — to the Homeless World Cup in South Africa and in Denmark and returned to become a coach on a full scholarship at S&G. Now he is the coach of the team. In Milan in 2009, he took the Homeless World Cup team of Nigeria to the semi-finals for the first time in our history.

We have taken about 50 extremely disadvantaged boys (formerly homeless) out on international trips to Europe, Australia and South Africa and not a single one has absconded. They have always returned back to Nigeria. Next December, we are going to be in Brazil to represent Nigeria. In June, we are going to be in South Africa to represent Nigeria at the FIFA Football for Hope Festival.

Who are the heroes at S&G?

People always want to talk about Messi, but we are not talking about Valdes, or Carlos Puyol. We only see Messi because he appears to be the point man. But Messi will tell you, like he always tells the media, that without the team he is not a footballer. Without teamwork you can never reach anything. Search & Groom has been sustained through synergies and teamwork. These guys (the kids) are the real heroes. Next September, they are going to be in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to represent Nigeria at the Homeless World Cup. In June this year we are going to represent Nigeria at the FIFA Football for Hope forum in Johannesburg

What do you think about The Ball, Yomi?

The Ball is breaking down barriers across tribes, race, social status, and economic status. Special Olympics is doing a lot of great work with people who are intellectually challenged. Through The Ball, we have been able to open up a partnership with Special Olympics.

Search and Groom and Special Olympics unified football teamOne Search & Groom and SO Unified Football team
Search and Groom and SO unified football teamThe other Search & Groom and SO unified football team

Through The Ball we are getting to build a relationship with our mentally challenged friends. It has connected us to people who were not aware of what we are doing. One Ball. One World.

Riva Offong

The mother of a Special Olympian

Time and again on this journey we have heard a very similar story. Parents of intellectually challenged children are embarrassed of their own child’s disability. Traditionally, parents bearing such children have been outcast from their tribal group –their inability to bear so-called normal children representative of weakness.

Those children even today are often not integrated into society or even worse they are emotionally and physically mistreated. One of Special Olympics’ biggest challenges in Africa is finding children with intellectual disabilities and convincing parents to let those children participate in SO’s programmes.

Andrew met up with Riva Offong, mother of Treasure, an intellectually challenged child who is a member of Special Olympics Nigeria.

Riva Offong

Andrew: “Please tell us about your daughter.”

Riva: “My daughter is 26, her name is Treasure and she is down syndrome but she is okay she does everything herself. She is independent and I am quite proud of her and we all love her.”

Treasure Offong

Andrew: What is the norm here for parents with intellectually challenged children?

Riva: The norm is that you hide them. You don’t bring them out. Which is most unfortunate because then they don’t do anything. They don’t amount to anything. Treasure travels everywhere she wants to go. She is quite independent. I know of some parents who have autistic children who lock them up. Actually, these children might be, like they say, mentally challenged. It is a matter of teaching and being patient with them. Treasure reads and writes and sings songs because we have encouraged her and allowed her freedom of thought.

Andrew: Do you have a message for parents of intellectually challenged children?

Riva: Okay you have them. It is not by choice. It is by God’s divine will. There must be a purpose why they are here with you. So encourage them as much as a normal child. Let them be normal, because they can be normal. They might look different but they are okay. So don’t hide them. Bring them out and be proud of them. They are your children and you should be proud of them.

Special Olympics: Healthy Athletes

Our highlight Special Olympics event in Benin is a gathering of intellectually challenged athletes, their parents, Special Olympics coaches, administrators and 20 plus volunteers for a free healthy athletes medical screening followed by a Unified Football match.

Volunteers with The BallVolunteers with The Ball

The Minister of Sport arrives late (not unusual for dignitaries anywhere) but the screening can’t wait for him (and nor should it).

The waiting - only so long you can wait for a MinisterWaiting for the Minister to arrive

The doctors, nurses, volunteers, parents and athletes have limited time and all the athletes need to be screened. That is the priority. Athletes’ eyes are tested (Opening Eyes) and where necessary prescription glasses are ordered for them.

Healthy EyesHealthy Eyes

Athletes’ teeth are checked (Special Smiles), where necessary dental appointments are made and each athlete receives a tooth brush and a tube of toothpaste.

Beautiful SmilesSpecial Smiles

Athletes’ have their ability to listen checked (Healthy Hearing) and appointments made with specialists. Athletes are given a thorough medical examination (Med Fest) and provided with healthy, locally-produced food (avocados, apples, oranges and pineapples) to take home.

Healthy food is distributed to the athletesHealthy food is distributed to the athletes

Special Olympics trains doctors, nurses, dentists and volunteers so that they can learn how to work with special needs people. After the screening, the Special Olympics community comes together on the field of the national football stadium — Stade de l’Amitié — for a game of Unified Football after which everyone signs The Ball.

Special Olympics girls team kicks The Ball aboutA Special Olympics girls team kicks The Ball about
Athletes and The Ball in the StadiumAthletes and The Ball in the Stadium
Special Olympics athletes in Benin with The BallSpecial Olympics athletes in Benin with The Ball

In countries like Benin, where there are inadequate resources for the provision of public health-care, Special Olympics is offering free health-care to intellectually challenged athletes. Healthy Athletes is an important programme and we are honoured to be there.

Visit to Social Rehabilition Center

We visit the Centre de Promotion Sociale Cotonou — a social rehabilitation center set-up in 1992 and funded by the Beninese Ministry of Family, Social Protection and Solidarity. The welcome is fantastic — intellectually challenged children and their parents and teachers of the school sing and dance — welcoming us into their center.

Welcome to our centerWelcome to our center

This education center acts as a stepping stone for intellectually challenged children, aiming to help them find places in schools and liaising with their families to build a supportive home base. Special Olympics Benin is one of the center’s partners. Two Special Olympics coaches lead sports sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays every week and on Saturdays they run training sessions at the national stadium.

All hands on The BallAll hands on The Ball

Special Olympics also run their healthy athletes screening, where doctors and dentists come to the center twice a year and run complete medical checks. Children receive free dental care and are supplied with reading glasses if they need them. All of this is funded through donations to Special Olympics. The presentation of The Ball evokes great interest and every single person at the center (intellectually challenged or not) kicks or heads and signs The Ball, then it is time for a kick-about. It is much too hot for football so the game doesn’t last long.

One of the children took a special liking to The Ball and didn’t want to let go…

My BallMy Ball

Even the youngest members of the center signed The Ball

Young signitriesYoung signatories

They sang a touching farewell song as we left the centre.

Au revoirWaves goodbye

The memories will last much longer and the smiles on the faces of everyone are a testimony to the fabulous work being done by Special Olympics and to the magnetism and magic of The Ball.

The Ball 2018 left England on 25th March 2018 and travelled to the World Cup in Russia.

The Ball 2014 kicked off from England on 9th Jan 2014 and headed to the World Cup in Brazil.

The Ball 2010 left England on 24th Jan 2010 headed to the Opening Ceremony in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Ball 2006 travelled from London to the Opening Ceremony in Munich, Germany.

The Ball 2002 was carried 7000 miles across Europe and Asia to the World Cup finals in Korea & Japan.